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> > > The Greatness of ‘Great Britain’ at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

18 October 2014

Richard Bean’s fast and furious play is an anarchic piece about the press, the police and the political establishment. Star Lucy Punch who plays Paige Britain was recently reported in the Independent to describe the satire as ‘a fond look on tabloid journalism’. For Mik Scarlet it is a laughter-filled satire based on a truth almost too real to be funny.

photo of actress Kiruna Stamell pictured at a desk and wearing a smart suit

Kiruna Stamell plays 'hard-balled' solicitor Wendy Klinkard, in the National Theatre production: 'Great Britain'. Photo © Johan Persson

I left the Theatre Royal a little shell-shocked if I'm honest. I am always amazed at how access provision within London's theatre district seems to have stopped improving during the late 1980s. I was unable to collect my tickets as the box office is up steps, so I had come to see the National Theatre's production of Great Britain with my wife, who was also acting as my PA. 

I was shown through a side door into the stalls, and was expected to sit in my chair with an ageing wooded ramp under my front wheels to counteract the theatre's rake. The accessible loo was only just big enough for my wheelchair, and after it had been used by all those non-disabled theatre goers too impatient to wait for their interval wee, it was also awash with urine. The good thing about staying seated in my chair, once I got used the bizarre angle I ended being sat at thanks to the chucks that prevented me from falling out of my chair, was that I had a totally uninterrupted view of the stage. 

Great Britain revolves around the machinations of hyper ambitious tabloid journalist Paige Britain and follows her rise, fall and rise again against the set back of the hacking scandal. I shall give no more away than that, as it is a superb piece of satirical theatre. But as someone who has worked in TV news rooms and who was also the target of an almost (but not quite) libelous piece of tabloid reporting, I can safely say it is far closer to the truth than the audience may suspect. 

This was why I wheeled away from the theatre feeling uneasy. It was a little like watching elements from my own life performed live on stage. I have known all of the characters in the piece to various extents, from the boorish editor, through to the do anything to get on journo to the ‘real’ people desperate for their fifteen minutes. 

Great Britain holds a mirror to the press and media industries and only disguises what it reflects through laughter. The laughs are there more for release than anything else, because if it was presented as entirely ‘real’ everyone would have left the play feeling as I did.

Another reason why Great Britain struck such a chord with me was the inclusion of disability. Not only because of the superb performance of disabled actor Kiruna Stamell, playing hard-balled solicitor Wendy Klinkard, proving disabled actors are equally able to hold an audience as anyone, but also as disability is one of the themes of the piece. 

The story of a father of two missing children hounded by the press, threads through the plot. Their certainty in his responsibility for their disappearances, is due to his having Aspergers. So while Ms Stamell explodes the theatre world's stereotypes about disabled actors not being up to scratch, the play exposes the presses less than sympathetic preconceptions about disability. 

In a week where our government highlighted how they feel about the worth of disabled employees, with much of the press supporting them in those beliefs, this was particularly relevant. It was thoroughly enjoyable to see Ms Stamell unleash her talent to take her place within the cast of household names, and it was obvious that the script had been tailored to her in such a way to allow her to use her talent to even greater success. Bravo Kiruna, you nailed it kid!

All in all, I wonder if I was the right person to review Great Britain. My experience in the media meant the satire was a little too truthful for me. Equally my left wing politics mean I hated every character in the piece, which is never good for an audience member, as it means they care not where the story goes.

For anyone who has not lived in such a cut throat, morality starved atmosphere I am sure Great Britain is a show you should not miss. Just as you laugh and guffaw your way through the show, remember this isn't as far from the truth as you might hope!

Great Britain plays at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, until 10 January 2015. Please click on this link for theatre access details in Dao's events listings pages.

Please click on this link to read Jessica Barrett's interview with 'Great Britain' star Lucy Punch

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